Booze, Bullfights, and Beauty: THE SELECT Dazzles at The McCarter

by Patrick Maley

Susie Sokol, Mike Iveson, and Lucy Taylor in THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES). Photo credit: Rob Strong.

I hereby nominate Elevator Repair Service’s THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) for the coveted honor of “The Booziest Play Ever.” Who are its challengers? THE ICEMAN COMETH? Maybe, but most of Hope’s customers are in a constant state of drunkenness rather than a constant state of drinking. Albee’s George and Martha of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Teetotalers compared to this crew. Conor McPherson’s RUM AND VODKA? Lots of drink, but really only the narrated story of a bender.

No, THE SELECT must run away with this title. For as the hundred or so empty bottles that line the top edge of its set remind us: these are characters that exist in and of the drink. Alcohol is for them as permanent an accessory as socks.

But booze does not so much define this play as it underscores its strongest theme: the struggle to make life interesting, to wrench some excitement from the quotidian, to occupy the mind and the body in anything other than simply existing.

Adapted for the stage from Ernest Hemingway’s landmark novel that gives the play its subtitle, THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) makes vivid and palpable the angst that festers the so-called post–World War I “Lost Generation.” If the novel tells us about this cohort of expats seeking relief from their mundane lives in Paris nightclubs and Spanish fiestas, the play shows us those efforts with a powerful  immediacy. The production is loud, colorful, and often kinetic, as its characters scream with a passionate urgency for connection and purpose. THE SELECT is boldly creative theater that both limits itself to and invigorates itself with Hemingway’s language.

Unlike Elevator Repair Service’s GATZ, an eight-hour verbatim performance of The Great Gatsby, THE SELECT (clocking in at just a shade over three hours) is not a cover-to-cover dramatization of its source novel, but it does use Hemingway’s language exactly as written. Editing out some of the author’s more sprawling passages—gone, for example, are those chapters describing in great detail the beauty of the Spanish countryside and the revelry of drinking on a bus with Basques—THE SELECT concentrates the story’s drama on the malaise of Jake Barnes, the restlessness of Lady Brett Ashley, and the troubling presence of Robert Cohn.

As our narrator, Barnes (Mike Iveson) looks out over the auditorium and tells us about his cohort’s life living in Paris after the first World War. He is one of fellow-American Robert Cohn’s (Matt Tierney) two friends, and a romantic bane to the British Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor).

Cohn has always been an outsider, having become middleweight boxing champion of Princeton “to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton” (a famous line from Hemingway’s first chapter that takes on extra resonance on the McCarter’s stage), and continues not to fit in as an adult.

Brett is soon to divorce her second husband in favor of her betrothed Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson), and spends her nights in Paris carousing with any number of different men. Her hair is short, her cigarette is constantly lit, and her spirit is mostly free. She lives to dance, drink, and love, and would gladly be with Barnes if not for the problem that a war injury has left him impotent. While the two share an unfulfilled romance, Brett manages to enchant every man she encounters, including Cohn. Things get complicated after Brett acquiesces to a casually romantic getaway with Cohn, and then the entire cohort, including Campbell, head to Pamplona for the fiesta and bullfights. Cohn obsessively hounds Brett, Campbell’s irritation grows, Barnes remains dispiritedly resigned to his inadequacy, and Bill Gorton (a delightful Ben Williams as the novel’s most delightful character) does his best to keep everybody’s attention on the revelry.

Kaneza Schaal in THE SELECT. Photo credit: Rob Strong.

Narrator Barnes demands the lion’s share of our attention, and Iveson’s performance encapsulates the soul of this show and its characters. He is frank and direct, not cold but also not emotional. He is excited at the fiesta’s most riotous times, and crestfallen whenever reminded of his impossible romance, but his general demeanor is even-keeled and matter-of-fact. Embracing the literariness of Hemingway’s short declarative sentences, Iveson avoids romance or theatrics, simply telling us the story as Barnes knows it. The effect captures wonderfully the spirit that defines Barnes and his generation: a sense of abandonment to the time, a lack of purpose, and a disinterest in fighting the vicissitudes of the world. After an act two fight, an emotional and guilt-ridden Cohn (an outsider in part because of his strong emotions), asks “Are you all right, Jake?” Of course Barnes is all right: with nothing to gain or lose, no risks or benefits in the world, what is to be upset or excited about? “Oh, yes,” Barnes replies, “I’m all right.”

Certainly no generation—no matter how lost—is without the occasional spiritual release, and the best parts of THE SELECT are when it captures this in its two dance scenes, the first set in a Paris nightclub, and the second marking the commencement of the Pamplona fiesta. Like Mardis Gras, the fiesta is a time of carnival, an escape from rigid social norms in favor of exuberant and occasional debaucherous celebration. Before this dance, Barnes narrates the quiet day prior to the fiesta’s opening, as each member of the ensemble gradually enters to sit quietly in neatly arranged rows of chairs: “That was the last day before the fiesta,” he says before moving directly to the next day when “the fiesta exploded,” the cue on which the stage explodes as well.

Barnes shouts narration imperceptibly over the loud pounding of riotous music; the entire cast dances an exuberant routine marked particularly by the physicality of its thrusts and sways; Campbell adds to the music’s power by playing drums on the cushions of bar seats; bodies crash together in orgiastic union.

The mundaneness of these character’s lives seems so settled and steady, but the marvelous dance scenes remind us that simply because they see little point in everyday toil does not mean that they don’t yearn for passion and enthusiasm. This sense comes through in Hemingway’s novel, but the vividness of THE SELECT expresses it more fully and completely: there is a certain kind of marvel to actually seeing Brett Ashley’s short hair swing as she dances and her cigarette hangs lazily from her mouth, to watching as our often unexcitable narrator joins the revelry. If Hemingway gives us a glimpse into the lives and angst of a stagnate generation, THE SELECT assaults our senses with that angst, denying us any opportunity to ignore the emotional explosion expressed in drink, dance, and revelry.

As insightful as it is inventive, THE SELECT grabs the soul of Hemingway’s novel and thrusts it forcefully onto the stage. In daring to ask how the confines of a theater can enhance the sprawl of a novel, Elevator Repair Service has enlivened and made immediate the tensions and longings of complex characters. A river of booze flows freely and constantly through this show, but THE SELECT insists that the generation sailing on that river never forgoes its passion for the exuberance of life.

Created and Performed by Elevator Repair Service
Directed by John Collins
LIMITED RUN: October 26mdash;November 4
McCarter Theatre
91 University Place
Princeton, NJ, 08540

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